Bicycle Set-Up and Care

There are some things you need to know about the set up and care of the bike


Proper seat height is essential. If the seat is too low your knees can be damaged. Bicycling is normally not bad for the knees, on the contrary, often prescribed as therapy for bad knees. Riding with the seat too low also robs your legs of power on climbs. If your seat is to high it will cause you to rotate left and right on the seat as you pedal. This hip rotation is not good for you nor comfortable on the seat. A very close proximity to proper seat height can be determined by the following method. Sit on the seat. Put the pedal at the bottom of its stroke. Place your heel on the pedal. Your leg extended should be almost straight at the knee when the seat is at the proper height. Never raise your seat above the line scribed on the seat post which tells you the max-height. The angle of the seat is a matter of preference and comfort. I like my seat level. The seat also slides fore and aft on the rails. Until you have ridden a while this adjustment may not seem to make much difference. The ride can be a little softer with the seat back a little. This adjustment changes the distance to the handle bars also. Once proper height is determined mark your seat post with a permanent felt tip marker. Put a ring all the way around it so that a small part of the mark shows above the seat post clamp. You will always be able to return your seat to the proper place when it is moved up or down.


You may be wondering about the clips which hold your shoes to the pedals. They are called toe clips and straps. Some new bikes come with "clipless" pedals which actually clip on to a cleat that is attached to the bottom of special shoes. What about them? Whether to ride with open pedals, clips and straps, or clipless pedals is a matter of personal preference. There are many advantages to having the foot secured to the pedal in some manner. The biggest advantage is the extra sense of control over the bike. There is a certain oneness with the bike that is easier achieved with toe clips or some foot pedal connection. When I first started riding off road, I would change between toe clips and open pedals often. The toe clips were aggravating. Hard to get my feet on the pedals. Then one day going down a hill, my front wheel hit in a stump hole. The bike stopped instantly. I did not. My feet slid off the front of the pedals. The handle bar stem managed to stop my forward motion. From that day on I rode with toe clips and straps. I like to think of them as seat belts for my feet. There is no doubt clips and straps or clipless pedals can cause you to fall when you can't bail off of the bike. I believe beginners are better off to learn to ride with toe clips and the straps set loose and not plan to or get in a bad habit of bailing off of the bike, then later try to learn to stay on. Clipless pedals and shoes can be a sizeable investment, but are easier to get out of than clips and straps, try any ways you can and decide for yourself. Some type of foot-pedal connection gives you more bike control and more power on a seated climb. This is indisputable.


Your bicycle should have the proper tires for the type of riding you are doing. Tire pressure is very important. If the pressure is too low running over a root, rock, or rut will cause the rim to pinch the tube against the object and cut two holes in the tube. This is referred to as snake bite. With the tire pressure to high, the bike will ride rough, be difficult to control on rough trails, and not have good traction. The pressure range is printed on the side wall of the tire. Typically it will be something like "35 - 65 PSI", but may be different for your tires. Don't use pressures outside this range. Light riders or riders with "finesse" can use the lower rated pressure. Other riders will have to adjust their tire pressure higher.


They hold the wheels on most better bicycles. This makes transporting and working on the bike easier. Many bikes have QR's on the seat height adjustment. These quick releases actually hold the wheels very securely. They must be closed properly or they are unsafe. If you purchase your bicycle from a reputable shop, they will show you the proper way to close the QR's before you leave the shop with the bike. If they do not do so. Ask them. The position of the QR handle is also important. The QR on the front wheel should be pointing upward and usually angled just behind the fork leg. Some fork legs require the lever to be just in front of it. The important thing is that it will not snag as you ride. Levers are marked "open" and "close". To adjust the tension open the lever. Hold it from turning and turn the nut on the other side of the wheel to cause the lever to require more or less pressure to close the it. When you close it with the heel of the palm of your hand, you should have a slight depression left in your hand. The QR needs to be tight, but over tightening it can cause it to weaken and over time break. The rear QR should close either inside the rear triangle or pointed up and back so it will not snag something and get opened by accident. All riders need to know how to properly operate their quick releases, as it is each riders responsibility to make sure their bike is safe and in order.


It probably goes without saying that the brakes must be in good operating condition before a ride. There are some brake set-up procedures that you will have to rely on a bicycle mechanic to do. There are some things that you can do yourself. Some things you can adjust some you need to check. Start by getting directly in front of the front brake. Apply the brake. The brake pads should hit the rim squarely. Notice that they do not hit the tire side wall nor do they hit the rim so close to the inside that they might slip inside the rim. Release the brake lever. When the pads come off of the rim they should clear on both sides of the rim. Notice that they are clear of the tire side wall also. Check the back brakes in the same manner. If the brake pads do not contact the rim properly, they need to be set. This may have to be done by your local shop, unless you are good with tools and willing to take the time to learn proper brake set-up. If the brake pads rub the side wall of the tire they will rub a hole in it. An un-repairable blow out will result. If the pads are too low they may go under the rim and wreck the brakes or worse. Next check the distance between the brake lever and the handle bar grip when the brakes are applied. If the distance is too close the levers may contact the grips before sufficient brake pressure is applied to stop the bike on steep hills. If the lever is too far from the bar the pads may scrub the rims all the time, especially if ridden in mud. A wide lever is also difficult to operate. If the distance of the lever from the bar is too great when the pads contact the rim this will not be comfortable. Often the handle bar is gripped with the thumb and two fingers while two fingers operate the brake lever. The brake lever handle bar distance is easily adjusted by turning the ferrule on the brake cable where it attaches to the brake lever. If the brakes are set up properly you will be able to adjust the brake lever this way. As the brake pads wear you will have to adjust this ferrule out, because the lever will gradually move closer to the grip as brake pads wear. If you have small hands many brake levers have a reach adjustment screw. This sets the distance from lever to grip when the lever is released and makes it easier to reach around bar grip and lever if hands are small. If your brakes squeal loudly when braking, your braking power will be reduced and brake pivots will wear prematurely. Brake squeal may be due to dirty rims or brake pads. Release the straddle cable or cross top cable on "V" style brakes as you would to remove the wheels. Scrub the rims and pads with soap and water. Dry them. Take a piece of 100 grit sandpaper and break the glaze on the surface of the pad where it contacts the rim. If this doesn't stop the squealing your brakes may have to be set up by a bike mechanic. Old style cantilevers require pad toe-in to be quiet and work properly. New "V" or direct pull brakes little or no toe-in.


If you ride several times a week, about once a month you should go over your bike and check for loose bolts. Most of them are "metric socket head" bolts and require metric allen wrenches to tighten. Others such as pedals, will require a metric open end, box end, or socket wrench to tighten. Do not use pliers, vice-grips or such on the bolts of your bike. You will damage the bolt heads so that they can not be properly tightened. There are other bolts on your bike, but these can hurt you or damage your bike if you ride with them not properly tightened. Here are the main things you should concentrate on:

Attention: very important

Checking your bike can give you safer and more enjoyable rides. If you have doubt about anything on your bike or in your ability to check it, ask your bike shop mechanic. He is familiar with the workings of your bike.


If you really ride off road your bike will get dirty and maybe very muddy. Don't take your bike to a high pressure car wash. Don't use a hard spray from your garden hose to clean your bike. These will force water past the seals on the bearings. Rinse your bike with a gentle flow such as an open hose. Use a paint brush or other soft brush to dislodge caked mud and dirt. Use detergent and a soft brush to clean the bike. Rinse throughly and dry it. Parts of your bike will need lubrication after washing. If your bike is not very dirty try something like Pedros Bike Lust. You spray it on your bike and then wipe your bike down with a towel. This will also make your bike look great after a wash job.


You will need to learn how to lubricate your bike if you want to keep it in good working order. There are some items easy to lubricate. Others, such as suspension fork, require more skill. There are many excellent lubricants available from Tri-Flow, Pedros, Finish Line, White Lightening and others suitable for use on your bike. The chain is one thing which requires a great deal of attention on a mountain bike. If your chain is not real dirty, simply re-lube it. To do this use a suitable chain lube; I like Tri-Flow or Pedros Syn-Lube. Put the chain on about the center of the rear cogs or about three from the smallest and the big ring on the front. Turn the pedals backwards as you put one drop of oil on each roller in the chain. There will be just under 120 of them. Turn the pedals a dozen revolutions backwards then wipe excess oil from the chain. Wipe all you can off. Be sure to remove it from the side plates of the chain. This will also clean the chain some. The only oil which does any good is down inside the chain. If your chain is dirty you will need to clean it before lubricating it. One method is to spray it with WD-40 and wiping it off, repeating several times until the chain is clean. This will work OK. A special chain cleaner costs about 20 bucks and works great. You may decide to purchase one of them after a while. After cleaning it be sure to lube it. WD-40 is not a good chain lube. Look at your chain often. Clean and lube it when it is dirty or dry. You need to know how to determine when a chain is worn enough to warrant changing. It needs to be clean to measure it for wear. If you don't know how to check your chain, get your local bike shop to check it for you and show you how. Replace it when worn or you will wear the front and rear sprockets prematurely. This is expensive and preventable damage. Some newer lubes are put on and dry and you may find some of them to your liking.

The bearings in the wheels, bottom bracket, and headset are sealed and can not be lubricated without disassembly. They don't need it very often. They will go a long time without being re-lubricated.

The front and rear derailleur pivots on most bikes need a drop of oil when you do the chain. Clean and lube the jockey pulleys on the rear derailleur.

The shift and brake cables will need it a couple of times a season. Your bike should have slotted cable stops. These will allow you to lube the cables easily. If you release the brake as you would for wheel removal you can pop the sheath of the cable out of the stop and lube the inner wire with good grease. The only part of the wire that needs lube is the part inside the sheath. The shifter cables need grease also and can be lubricated the same way.

Follow the manufacturers recommendations for the suspension fork if your bike has one. You will need special lube and skill to clean and lube the inside workings of a suspension fork. If you don't know how to do it the local bike mechanic may be your best bet.

If you ride your bike in mud or other adversely dirty conditions remove the seat post. Clean the post and the seat tube of the bike where it fits. Re-lube the post with a light coat of grease or oil. This will prevent squeaking, corrosion, or the seat post from seizing in the bike frame.

Know how, when, and where to lubricate your bike. It will work better, be more fun to ride, and last a great deal longer.

When any piece of equipment is used under extreme conditions it requires proper care. A bicycle when subjected to the rigors of hard off road riding requires a great deal of care. Many times bike trouble can be traced directly to improper care or no care at all. Equipment failures can be breakage, but more often will be improper shifting, bad brakes, flat tires, things not working properly or things just coming loose. Most of these can be prevented by giving your bicycle the attention and care it needs between rides.

I have attempted to insure the information here is accurate and truth as I know it. The safety and condition of your bike is your responsibility. If you have questions or don't believe you can keep your bike in a safe condition, be sure to find a good bike shop with a qualified bike man who will help you.

Written by: Aaron Bruce
May not be reproduced without permission

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